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Monthly Archives: February 2010

Ten Word or Less Review: A big, thunderous effort for a mostly silly movie.

Every time Martin Scorsese steps behind a camera, something legendary is supposed to unfold.  The man is supposed to weave masterpieces the way old ladies knit socks.  The power of his monumental works looms over everything he does and has for years, so to see the man indulging in something as ultimately nonsensical as “Shutter Island” is a little odd, but not necessarily bad.  “Shutter Island” is a lavish lark of film making from a master level cinematic genius out to goof off and indulge in his most uninhibited instincts.  It may not be unique or groundbreaking, but its got a vitality and unrelentingness that most movies never dream of achieving.

Set during the early 1950’s, “Island” stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Scorsese’s go to guy of the past decade, as a federal marshal investigating the impossible disappearance of an inmate from a foreboding insane asylum.  The solitary institution houses only the most criminally insane lunatics and keeps them under stringent lock and key.  The disappearance of a female inmate from the facility points to conspiracy and cover up and so on and so forth.  There’s not much point covering all the ins and outs because any astute viewer will be onto the movie’s tangled gimmicks pretty quickly.  “Shutter Island” is twisty/trickery cinema and it makes no bones about it.  Nothing will be as it seems, but in this case, everything sort of is.  The larger points to consider with movies like “Island” are ‘Does the movie make any sense on its own terms?’ and ‘Does the film jerk us around with too many twists for twist sake?’  The answers are ‘sort of’ and ‘mercifully not.’  I say ‘sort of’ because while it makes sense on its own terms, the film culminates in what are extremely loopy explanations for itself.  The entire movie proves to be ridiculous, but if you can accept the ludicrous nature of it, you might have a grand old time.  I say ‘mercifully not’ because there’s nothing quite as annoying as a movie twist that doesn’t know when to stop twisting.  Eventually you can wind up with a piece of barb wire cutting into your wrist.

The fun comes because Scorsese is not playing subtle games or out to impress critics with sensitivity or well groomed panache.  “Shutter Island” hammers the audience with a pulverizing film score, thunderous sound effects, a few spook cuts, nightmare inspired visuals, but it’s not a horror show, it merely acts like one from time to time.  Scorsese unfurls his creation as a type of escalating fever dreamscape that might make David Lynch a little envious if he felt such things.  I doubt he does.  Scorsese’s at his flashiest and attention getting best here and things are likely better for that.  A more down to Earth craftsman would likely have played the material too straight or close to the chest, refusing to acknowledge the exaggerated and purple nature of the tale at hand.  Scorsese clearly knows how sensational all of this is at its core and has in turn decided to indulge whatever rampant instinct comes to him.  “Island” is routinely gripping and lurid, edging so close to spinning out of control, but never quite does.  Its ending may seem a bit ham-fisted and on the nose, but it works on the whole.

As for the cast, DiCaprio has become a more comfortable fit for Scorsese’s work as time as gone on.  He’s gradually shed that problem of looking like a man boy in Scorsese’s world of dangerous, tight fisted men.  He isn’t overshadowed or knocked off the screen by any of his amply talented co-stars.  “Shutter Island” may be raucous and preposterous but it attracted a who’s who of top tier actors.  Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingley, Max Von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Elias Koteas and rediscovered Jack Earl Haley all do excellent work in parts that range from expository to fleeting in nature.  The fact that they still stand out against the director’s nearly hysterical style says a lot for them.

The book on Scorsese has been written by this point, everything from here on out is just one more chapter to consider in his God-like body of work.  Critically, “Shutter Island” will probably not see a lot of talk or appreciation whenever this book comes to a close.  It’s goofy, bombastic, asinine and kind of nuts, none of which are endearing qualities in the world of film critiquing.  But it will likely be one of his most popular films over time because despite all the inherent drawbacks and histrionics that make it up, the sheer watchability of it is hard to argue with.

Related to: Identity, Vanilla Sky, The Others

Ten Word or Less Review: Great, unheralded African adventure from the mid 60’s.

Stories revolving around hunting humans became cinematic territory early into the invention of sound films.  1932’s “The Most Dangerous Game” was the first film to delve into one man’s blood lust to search for and then kill the other.  The genre continues to this day with grizzly affairs like Mel Gibson’s blood soaked Mayan epic “Apocalypto.”  Existing somewhere between the two in both age and style is the accomplished 1966 effort “The Naked Prey” by actor/director Cornel Wilde.

Wilde stars as a 19th century hunting guide in Africa whose employer foolishly disregards his warnings about giving proper tribute to the natives while crossing their terrain.  Upon this sign of disrespect, the entire hunting party is attacked and massacred by savage African natives.  Wilde’s nameless man is stripped naked and sent running into the African wild to fend for his life as his spear wielding captors plan to make quick work of him for sport.  Little do they count on his advanced survival skills and before they know it, a member of hunters has been killed by his hand as he tries to make his way out of hostile territory.  “The Naked Prey” is by turns a first rate survivalist tale, a study of the relationship between predator and prey, as well as a fascinating look at an individual thrown into the type of everyday kill or be killed existence which people have largely forgotten.

Wilde intersperses the movie with documentary styled footage of one creature making meal of another.  The crux of Wilde’s interludes is there to remind us that being part of nature is to face the daily possibility that you will be food for something else.  His is not a romantic presentation of the predator/prey relationship.  The contemporary nature documentary that most people experience has often leant a strong and misguided dose of tragedy into the animal kingdom.  In short, nature documentaries turn what is no ore than lunch for a creature into Shakespearean tragedy.  A film like “The Naked Prey” reminds us of what nonsense such sentiment can seem like.  Wilde’s nameless prey scours the land for something, anything, to survive on while not being made into another critters dinner.  It’s a keen example about how quickly a person’s higher forms of civility can be amputated and rendered useless.

Wilde’s prowess as a director overall is unknown to me, he directed just 8 films in 20 years, but here he serves as a great builder of suspense.  He keeps his story in check and on the rails, careful not to let things get convoluted or out of hand.  The initial presentation of a fearsome, blood thirsty tribe of savage Africans may put some on edge.  One fears that we’re on the cusp of a lurid, white man nightmare where higher society is put on the run by backwards beast of black skin.  Wilde starts here but makes the wise decision to gradually flesh out the pursuers.  Instead of making the tribesmen mindless fodder, they develop into a group of characters, albeit minor ones.  While Wilde’s nameless man stays pretty much the same through out the story, his hunters are the ones who undergo changes and failures.  They mourn their fallen comrades, they turn on each other as they consistently fail to catch their prey, their leader turns their game into a ruthless quest as their numbers dwindle.  Wilde himself is mostly responsible for pulling off a physically convincing portrait of a man who could manage to survive in the African wild for days on end by wits and luck.  Most impressive of all is that Wilde does all this with almost with no understandable or subtitled dialogue.

Fans of gritty, survivalist cinema will be hooked into “The Naked Prey” pretty easily.  It’s a respectable feat and an interesting angle on an old subject.  It’s also another great example of a largely forgotten movie being brought back to the surface thanks to the folks at Criterion.

Closely Related To It: The Most Dangerous Game, Hard Target, Apocalypto, Zulu, Southern Comfort

Distant Relations: Predator, Cast Away

Black Dynamite – “Dynamite” is a kick ass idea, for about 30 or 40 minutes.  Not quite a parody of Blaxploitation cinema as a loving and dedicated recreation of the genre.  “Dynamite” is acutely aware of the absurdity and amateurish moves that made this genre what it was.  Badass brothers, boom mikes in afros, beautiful soul sisters, weak stunt work, lame honkeys up to jive shit, but more importantly, enough stone cold attitude to fill a theater with righteous badassery.  “Dynamite” scores major points with some hilarious bits in its first half.  Co-writer and star Michael Jai White nearly push the Wayan’s “I’m Gonna Get You Sucka” off the cinematic map forever.   But truth be told, this is a slim idea to work a whole movie out of and it starts to get silly and forced.  It’s a handful of top quality SNL sketches turned into a movie that slowly runs out of credible gimmicks to poke fun at.  While it can’t sustain itself completely, when it’s on, it’s top notch.  It’s a movie sure to drum up underground support.  I’m willing to bet some of its more quotable moments are already on a t-shirt somewhere.  My favorites include but aren’t limited to:

  • Hey man, you sent her in here with them titties, what did you expect?
  • First Lady, I’m sorry I pimp slapped you into that china cabinet.
  • Shh, mama, you gonna wake up the rest of the bitches.
  • You diabolical dick shrinkin’ mother fuckers!

It Might Get Loud: At the beginning of this documentary which brings together guitar legends Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White, an off camera voice asks White what might happen with all three of them in a room together.  White’s reply, “I don’t know, maybe a fist fight.”  That would’ve been iconic, what’s here is mostly stoic.  “Loud” features these three titans of guitar reminiscing about how they came to be the virtuosos they are and……well that’s about all.  The music is of course awesome, but there’s no real narrative purpose to this little experiment.  Occasionally a documentary proposes an idea or subject that looks great on paper, but fails to produce anything really worth watching and this is one of those cases.  You’d be just as well served to listen to some CDs from each legend or their influences while reading their wikipedia page.

Ten Word or Less Review – Typical Willis suck fest.

In 25 years of movie making Bruce Willis has made more forgettable, derivative, boiler plate action thrillers than any of his contemporaries.  “Surrogates” is one more clog in his long resume of run of the mill out put.

Set in a future where we all stay home and let robotic duplicates live our lives for us, “Surrogates” is a Frankenstein styled movie that borrows and imitates from so many other semi-recent sci-fi flicks, “I, Robot”, “Minority Report”, “The Sixth Day”, that it can’t establish any identity of it’s own.  Its screenplay was either half finished, gutted during production or generic and clichéd to begin with.  Such is a shame because the idea proposes lots of potential, if not for ponderous, upscale sci-fi, then at least a vehicle for clever action.  Director Jonathon Mostow has shown a flare for solid adventure pieces in the past with “Breakdown” and “U-571”, but he can’t make a go of this.  The movie plays like a slick looking production made for no more purpose than to fit comfortably into a cable broadcast on FX.

Fans of Willis will find him fully ensconced in his now worn out persona of stoic action star.  He looks so bored with everything I would imagine he’d eat his own foot for something interesting to do.  We all know and love, or at least like, Willis.  When he finds a good director and a good project to invest himself in, he can shine.  But too often he’s a lazy whore doing it for money.  This is yet another example of him taking the paycheck and letting the film stink up the joint while he walks away with a mountain of cash.

It’s come as no surprise to anyone when this type of Willis film materializes.  I’m usually sly enough to stay away from them.  Why did I watch this one?  I really don’t know.

Ten Word or Less Review: Visually arresting drama.  Great screenplay.

“A Single Man” is a pleasure to watch for many reasons.  Set in 1962, it’s about a gay college professor named Falconer, Colin Firth, but it’s not about the trials and tribulations that come with being gay in the 60’s.  Conflicts and angst about his sexuality are not at stake as it’s accepted and dealt with in a matter of fact fashion.  The beginnings of 60’s counter culture are popping up in college campuses like Falconer’s, but the film is not a retro, fetish fest replete with tiresome soundtrack staples that reflect the era.  Falconer is mourning the loss of his 16 year lover, Matthew Goode, but the film never falls into fits of spasmodic, emotional outburst.  Such would be crass and out of character for a film as emotionally in check as this one.  “A Single Man” is a story which could easily be ensnared into the typically arc styles mentioned above, but instead avoids tiresome clichés and situations and respects the nature of the story at hand, that being a film about a man mourning the loss of his life’s great love and the very meticulous planning of his own death.

“Man” could effectively be told in straight ahead fashion without stylistic flourishing, but in the hands of first time director Tom Ford, becomes an exercise in resplendent visual design and rhapsodic cinematography.  The film’s look is a constant expression of Falconer’s state of mind.  As what he is planning to be his last day on Earth starts, he looks into a world saturated in lifeless grays and dull blues.  As the day progresses the small things which he appreciates, his secretary’s refined looks, a young mans muscular body, the color palette briefly ripens into sumptuous colors.  It’s this psychological awakening of resplendent visuals which give “A Single Man” a quality in the technical department few films have.  There’s an argument to be made that perhaps the show off quality of the visuals draw too much attention to themselves, but I would strongly disagree.  This highly designed look is in service of the story at all times, not vice versa.  It would all be for nothing if the film failed on its other merits, failing to engage on any emotional level.  Such is not the case.

Colin Firth has appropriately been Oscar nominated for his calm, cool portrayal of a man set upon a decision to end his existence.  Firth doesn’t so much underplay Falconer as let him simmer calmly with his grief.  He’s a man who refuses to let his endless amounts of turmoil bubble up or pour over.  Though reserved, he never feels distant, vacant or emotionally unavailable.  He’s simply a pragmatic soul who no longer wishes to go through the motions of life without his true love.  Also, the movie doesn’t pound you over the head trying to make this homosexual relationship some kind of monumental political statement.  It’s simply a story of loss that pushes aside superficial politics.  Falconer is a man deserving of sympathy and in need of a cause to live.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Firth instills him with dignity and wit, never stooping to mad grasps at pity.  Julianne Moore has a noteworthy supporting role as Falconer’s neighbor/one time lover.  It’s a strongly written small part which is limited in time but has a lot of dynamic.  Moore does good work in a part which could easily have been overblown or melodramatic.

There’s more I’d like to say about “A Single Man” but it all revolves around the ending of the film and ruining endings is not something I relish.  To avoid spoiling anything, it’s an ending which is shocking and a little painful, but not in any way that this viewer was prepared for or saw coming.  The conclusion may turn some against the entire movie.  I’m still not sure myself why it accomplishes what it does the way it does.  But never the less, there it is and that’s that.  However it ends, “A Single Man” is a classy, thoughtful experience.  Firth is exceptional, and to see a film with such a refined, non-CGI endowed visual scheme is a real treat.

Youth Without Youth (2007) Elder statesman Francis Ford Coppola tackles what seems like a real labor of love.  For the viewer it may simply be a labor.  Coppola’s story of an old, WWII era scholar who de-ages 35 years after being struck by lightning is a movie blossoming at every turn with fantastic visuals, but it comes up short on any kind of cohesive story.  It seems intentional on Coppola’s part to ramble with this creation.  He throws one idea after another at the screen but he can’t bring all that he’s brought to the table together.  Tim Roth plays the professor, a man spending his life looking for the roots of human communication and culture.  His quest to dig for the origins of language and culture is a fascinating journey, to himself at least.  Coppola can’t instill his journey with much meaning to the viewer.  There’s supposed to be romance here as well, but like so much of the film, it too feels like a large excuse for flashy cinematography.  In short, it all looks wonderful, but doesn’t add up to a lot.

The Quiet Earth (1985)– If you scour through list of the greatest science fiction films of all time you may occasionally run across this Australian curiosity.  Don’t let your curiosity get the better of you.  A man wakes up to find he is the only man left alive, possibly on the entire planet.  He quickly loses his grip on reality until he finds another survivor of this unexplained holocaust.  A good idea unflatteringly executed.  Ends on a note of utter befuddlement.

Ten Word or Less Review: Nice movie.  Bridges is great.  Solid music.

Jeff Bridges is not a matinee idol.  Never really was.  He never had the iconic parts like Harrison Ford.  He didn’t have the muscular thing going on so he was never an action star.  He’s got great comedic timing and charm, but he was never really a comedy stalwart.  If you take a good hard look at his resume, it’s littered with epic failures, forgotten duds and just the occasional classic.  But the best thing about these films, regardless of the end product, was typically Jeff Bridges.  He is, in the best since of the word, a great actor.  He’s rarely played the standard Hollywood games that actors play.  And while he may not have found the huge amounts of success like other actors of his generation, he’s got integrity, respect and because of “Crazy Heart”, his fifth Oscar nomination in his 38 year career.

Bridges plays Bad Blake, a weary as hell, constantly smoking and drinking country music star whose career has washed out to the point that he’s playing bowling alleys and beer halls.  Whatever fortunes he’s made are long gone.  He’s left a trail of ex-wives and empty whisky bottles.  He lives gig to gig, bottle to bottle, trying to eek out a life.  He then meets a small town journalist, Maggie Gyllynhaal, who’s smitten with his honesty and beer flavored charm.  Bad’s luck finally starts to turn a little, but booze and bad judgment keep screwing with his attempts at a better life.  Bad has to decide if his life is going to end in some nameless hotel at the bottom of a bottle, or if he’s got the strength to dust himself off and keep making music that expresses what’s left inside this worn out old man.

“Crazy Heart” won’t win awards for ingenuity or originality.  Steadily guided by director Scott Cooper, “Heart” is a straight ahead tale that most people will know where it’s heading long before it gets there, but not mind following it that way.  Bridges is a class act in the kind of role that will inevitably be called some kind of swan song for the man.  Such contrivances shouldn’t be uttered.  Just because Bridges is playing a man at the end of his game doesn’t mean he is.  I see the part as just another success story in his long and worthy career.  It seems like people have to be reminded what a great actor Bridges is every few years, hopefully this will clue people in, again.  He’s ably backed by Gyllenhaal in a part that she embodies quite believably, despite the implausible nature that drives it.  Like Bridges, she’s been nominated for an Oscar for her efforts.

“Crazy Heart” is also a movie held up by fine music.  The songs penned by T. Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham are not run of the mill country schmaltz.  They’re genuinely affecting, low key efforts with strong lyrics.  So much so that the film’s title track has been nominated for Best Song.  If these songs had fallen flat, the movie would’ve done the same, or at least been far less meaningful.  Bridges carries all of his own singing duties and does well by the material.  Less successful, but in a less important role, is Colin Farrell cast a country superstar protégé of Bad’s  Farrell is fine in the part, but it’s quite clear that asking an Irishman to sing country may have been a bit of a stretch.

“Crazy Heart” is a nice, mid-tempo, unforced drama that succeeds despite the unoriginal nature of most of it.  Those calling it ‘The Wrestler with a guitar’ are on the nose, but “Heart” is mercifully missing that film’s relentlessly skuzzy veneer.  “Heart” is by no means a sanitary experience, the stench of Marlboro practically emanates from the screen as Bridges chain smokes through the whole film, but it’s got more charm and a better sense of fulfillment than “Wrestler” did.  Fans of Bridges and skilled song writing should find a lot to value in its viewing.